On a trip to Portland, Oregon a few years ago, a writer friend of mine recommended that I check out the work of Jeremy Robert Johnson. I dutifully went to Powell’s a day or so later and headed home after having purchased a short novel called Extinction Journals. That book proved to be my introduction to Johnson’s surreal, visceral, and frequently unsettling body of work. One more descriptor, while we’re at it: highly entertaining. Whether he’s writing about bizarre body modification, demonic forces seeking to corrupt the souls of those they encounter, or strange methods of surviving life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Johnson brings a pulpy urgency to the page, which blends neatly with the frequently heady concepts that he utilizes in his fiction.
Extinction Journals reads like J.G. Ballard in his 60s-apocalyptic mode (think The Drowned World), spiked with a heady dose of hallucinogens and an irreverent attitude. It’s set after nuclear weapons have devastated the landscape. Its everyman protagonist, Dean, has managed to escape annihilation via a suit that incorporates a legion of cockroaches. (The President attempts a similar trick, albeit with a suit coated in Twinkies. It’s an approach which doesn’t work out quite as well for him.) There’s a surreal logic at work here, and it’s one that carries through as the plot becomes more contorted, involving a character who loses an arm to one set of ants and has it rebuilt by another. Strange body modifications become more prevalent as this short novel heads towards its climax, creating a sense of visceral unease and paving the way for further exploration of this theme in works to come.